Canadian Red Cross deploys IP system to meet call centre needs

When the tsunami hit South Asia on Boxing Day a year ago, the Canadian Red Cross was inundated with donations and offers of assistance. But the organization’s call centre capability was so limited it couldn’t handle all the calls, according to Susan Borthwick, regional director of the Red Cross for B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

The next time a disaster hits, though, whether here at home or elsewhere around the globe, the organization expects it will be better equipped, thanks to a donation worth $1.5 million from Telus for its package of CallCentreAnywhere hardware, software, services and training.

“We’re currently able to take maybe 1,000 to 2,000 calls a day with our two-line capacity,” said Borthwick. “This new system will let us take up to 10,000 calls, so it’s a huge change for us.”

CallCentreAnywhere, an on-demand IP contact centre solution, provides a Web-based interface that can be accessed anywhere the user has a PC and Internet access.

Stan Tyo, vice-president of contact centres for Telus Business Solutions, said the product is scalable enough to be used by one to 3,000 call centre agents. “But the real sweet spot is typically from 150 agents down,” he said.

Tyo said Telus is seeing increased interest from public sector organizations and large corporations since 9/11 that are trying to come up with business continuity plans to deal with potential disasters.

“Right now you read in the news all the time about the possibility of a pandemic, so how do you protect against that or if somebody comes into work and they’ve been exposed and you have to send everybody home?” 

Borthwick explained that the Red Cross had been looking for cash donations from sponsors to upgrade its disaster call centre as part of a capital campaign.

“Our initial intent with the call centre was to go from telephones with no headsets and Tupperware bins and those kinds of things to actually a call centre where the volunteers could work with headsets and computer screens instead of working with paper,” she said. “The focus for us in this campaign, which really supports B.C. disasters and some international ones, is being able to support the entire country, so where we’ve been contracting out call centres across the country we’ll be able to activate this one for five years for free. After that we will be developing our own structure for maintaining it.”

The hardware will be stored on-site and can be set up and taken down as required. Telus will provision the software, she said, and two rooms with a capacity of 22 volunteers each will be available, although more can work from home as well.

The Red Cross is in the first phase of implementation, which involves upgrading its hardware, but it won’t be able to use the system until the software development of the system and the screens volunteers will use to issue receipts more quickly and expedite money to disaster-affected areas has been completed. Borthwick said that should be done by February, although the organization’s building is also undergoing a seismic upgrade, which is delaying the project.

But one of the biggest challenges the organization faces is recruiting and training volunteers able to work with the technology, she added.

“With the system we have right now we can train volunteers coming in off the street that have good communication skills but aren’t necessarily in tune with working with computers and telephones with more options, and also because the equipment will allow them to work at a faster pace we need to have people comfortable working in that environment,” she said. “Those aren’t the ones we currently have but those volunteers will be able to work in other parts of the operation.” 

For Pierre Pradier, help desk supervisor at Ivanhoe Cambridge, a company owned by the Quebec government, CallCentreAnywhere provided the flexibility he needed to enable his two help desk teams  — one in Toronto, the other in Montreal – act as one. Ivanhoe Cambridge owns 54 shopping centres across Canada, Europe and Asia. 

“We used to have two very distinct phone systems in Montreal and Toronto,” he explained. “Both were emulating a help desk but they didn’t give the caller any options. The only option was to leave a message if no one was available to take the call.”

Prior to CallCentreAnywhere, the only thing the help desk could do was to send all calls to either city, but it had no overflow, skills routing or reporting capabilities.

“So when we started to look into a new system, we were looking at voice over IP thinking it would be the key to merge the two systems and we quickly realized it was not what we were needing.”

Now, he said, the help desk teams can produce productivity reports and offer clients the option of being called back. Clients can call from B.C. and be serviced from Montreal or Toronto by fully bilingual staff.

It also provides emergency warning messages about critical systems issues. “It does everything we would expect to be able to do at a large help desk,” said Pradier. 

Pradier said the company is phasing in more of the features available in the offering as it gets more comfortable using it and as it configures it to its workflow.

The next feature it is going to run is the campaign system, which allows the user to structure workflow more graphically.

And while staff is still dealing with the culture shock of being able to provide better, faster service, he said, it has also had to come to grips with one more side-effect: since they can work from anywhere they have an Internet connection and have calls routed to pretty much any device, they can be working or available to work 24×7.

“The day of the snow day is gone,” said Pradier.

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